SEWARD, Neb. – Tuesday turned into a historic night for the Concordia University wrestling program, which flexed its muscles in a battle that matched a pair of teams with unbeaten conference records. The Bulldogs’ most significant dual in the six years since its rebirth in 2009 produced a convincing GPAC title-clinching 29-6 win over visiting Briar Cliff (5-1 GPAC) in front of another boisterous Walz crowd.
The blowout victory gave the program its first-ever GPAC dual championship. Third-year head coach Dana Vote’s squad carries an unblemished 6-0 league mark with just a single conference dual remaining on the schedule.
Ever since a 1-5 GPAC record during the 2012-13 season, Vote’s program has skyrocketed to the top of the conference and the NAIA’s North Qualifying Group.
“It was great. It was an emotional time,” Vote said of the win. “The guys are excited. We worked for this for the last year-and-a-half. It’s a big win for the seniors. Our two seniors are both transfers but they’re two guys who took a big risk coming here. We didn’t really have that great of a program at the time. I told them what I thought we could do and how they could be part of it. They bought in.”
A particularly strong team in the top half of the lineup, Concordia jumped out to a 14-0 lead on Briar Cliff with wins in each of the first four weight classes. Sophomore 125-pounder Dmitri Smith gave the Bulldogs plenty of early momentum with his 6-4 upset of 12th-ranked Kyle Robison to get the night started. Smith got on top early with a takedown that left Robison wobbly, helping lead to the fifth win over the past six matches for the native of Beaumont, Calif.
Smith’s win signaled the start of a momentous evening. The Bulldogs concluded the post-dual huddle by breaking on “conference champs.”
“It was exciting,” Smith said. “We worked hard for it. This shows how much work we put in.”
Concordia’s highly-ranked grapplers also turned in stellar nights with No. 4 (133) Emilio Rivera (D, 15-8), No. 6 (141) Andrew Schulte (MD, 12-4), No. 7 (149) Enrique Barajas (MD, 16-4), No. 14 (184) Austin Fehlhafer (D, 8-2) and No. 12 (197) Ken Bukhardt Jr. (pin, 2:15) all claiming victories.
In sum, the Bulldogs won eight of the 10 bouts in sending their latest statement to the conference. On Jan. 22 Concordia halted Morningside’s run of 31-straight GPAC dual wins. Briar Cliff entered Tuesday with six-consecutive conference victories. By the 197-pound tilt, the Chargers had already been guaranteed their first loss.
“Briar Cliff’s got a great team,” Vote said. “They were 5-0. Coming in we knew it was going to be a fight. That’s what we were prepared for – to go out and battle for seven minutes. The guys did it. If you look at us wrestling in November and look at us now, we’ve made great gains.”
Austin Starkey drew some of the loudest ovations of the night when he flipped a 4-2 deficit into a 7-4 victory over Steven Schaffer. The 165-pound Starkey rallied back with a reversal and three nearfall points. That led into Fehlhafer’s dual-clinching win at 184, where the Seward native earned an 8-2 decision over Thomas Patterson.
For good measure, Burkhardt Jr. added a pin of Jordan Watkins and 11th-ranked Ceron Francisco edged No. 10 Abram Reynolds, 3-2, in the heavyweight match.
While Concordia came away with only one pin on the night, its dominance was reflected in its 22-4 advantage in takedowns. Barajas’ five takedowns by himself were more than the Chargers’ output as a team.
Just two seasons ago the Bulldogs were on the wrong side of similar statistics.
“It was a rough year, man,” Vote said of the 2012-13 campaign. “But right now things are going good. It’s a great feeling to know that we’re there.”
The Bulldogs can finish off a perfect GPAC dual season by defeating Hastings (1-3 GPAC) on Feb. 12 in a contest set to take place inside the PE Gymnasium on the Concordia campus. Prior to the conference finale, the Bulldogs will take part in the Briar Cliff Open on Saturday. The action will get started at 9 a.m. from Sioux City, Iowa.